Should the San Francisco 49ers Have Confidence in Vernon Davis?

What does the trade of Derek Carrier mean for our faith in the veteran Niners tight end?

Preseason football often feels like an episode of “Columbo.”

The actual action is moot -- you’re shown who committed the crime right at the beginning of the episode -- but we get caught up in other narratives, and it takes us a while to realize what’s in front of our faces. Players emerge in the preseason whom we’ve never heard of, and we have to determine if they’re real, or a flash in the pan.

Seemingly disconnected facts actually become tied together in a big, meaningful constellation of evidence as we figure out “whodunit.” Often, we’re our own worst enemies as we make up stories to justify ourselves as fantasy draft season hits full steam.

As the great Lieutenant Columbo himself says, “You try to contrive a perfect alibi, and it's your perfect alibi that's gonna hang ya.”

Some of this preseason sleuthing is necessary, however, to help us re-confirm things we already know but are doubting.

For example, the trade of tight end Derek Carrier to the Cleveland Browns should be a sign that the San Francisco 49ers are not as down on veteran tight end Vernon Davis as we are in the fantasy community. A roster-filler tight end may seem unrelated to a former fantasy superstar, but you’ll have to trust me as I walk you through the crime scene; there are a couple of loose ends I'd like to tie up.

An Exercise in Fatality

Teams often leave enough clues in their transaction logs to sink a ship, so you can learn a lot about how a team values their players from scouring an NFL team’s transactions. Still, why should you care about a tight end who went undrafted in 2012, and why does this change our perception of Vernon Davis?

First of all, let’s see what we’re working with in terms of evidence in Carrier. Primarily in our investigations, we use our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Derek Carrier was a small-school project out of Beloit College, going undrafted in 2012. Originally a wide receiver in college, the good folks at Draft Insider called Carrier an “athletic pass catcher with tremendous upside.” They note that the 6’3”, 240-pound convert runs a 4.49-second 40-yard dash and is a marvel in the receiving game, totaling 75 receptions for 1,250 yards and 12 touchdowns in his senior season alone.

Carrier didn’t see regular season NFL action until 2014 with the 49ers, when he was the recipient of 14 targets, for a 3.86 Target NEP, and a solid-though-unspectacular 0.62 per-target Reception NEP mark. During the priority undrafted free agent process, he was earmarked by the Raiders, Seahawks, Broncos, Eagles, and 49ers.

So, what is it that connects Carrier to Davis, despite playing the same position on (formerly) the same team? Carrier is a highly athletic receiving tight end, playing the same role on an offense as Vernon Davis. So that we have a visual reference, let’s compare Carrier's and Davis’ physical workout profiles and see just how similar they are in athleticism.

The table below shows each player’s Combine workout drill times for the year they were drafted (for Carrier, this was his Beloit pro day). How close were they?

Player H/W 40 Yard Bench Vert Broad Shuttle 3-Cone
Vernon Davis 6’3”/254 lb. 4.40 33 42” 10’08” 4.17 7.00
Derek Carrier 6’3”/238 lb. 4.50 15 38” 10’02” 4.08 6.65

Now, remember: Davis is widely considered a generational athlete for his size. Carrier doesn’t match up exactly with him, weighing about 15 pounds less, with a shade less explosiveness (40-yard dash, vertical jump, and broad jump are considered “explosion drills”), but he had even better agility drill scores than Davis.

Why any of this matters is that Davis is in a contract year with the team in 2015, and as of recently there is almost no word that his camp and the 49ers have had contract extension discussions. With an additional threat to his job security in Carrier gone, Davis has more breathing room in his battle for a contract.

Ransom For A Dead Man

Now that we’ve lined up our evidence, let’s look at the perpetrator himself and see what we know about Vernon Davis’s career thus far. Is there anything in Davis’s production itself that says he still has “it,” or should we still be wary that he’s fallen off of a cliff in his career?

The table below shows Davis’ production over the last six years both in terms of box score stats and NEP. What will we find after our interrogation?

Year Rec/Tgt Yds. TD Rec NEP Per-Target Target NEP
2009 78/128 965 13 93.54 0.73 42.15
2010 56/93 914 7 74.25 0.80 45.84
2011 67/95 792 6 56.67 0.60 33.82
2012 41/61 548 5 45.92 0.75 32.86
2013 52/84 850 13 76.50 0.91 47.62
2014 26/50 245 2 16.03 0.32 -2.27

Davis clearly hit his peak -- both in the box score and behind the numbers -- in 2009, when he threw down nearly 1,000 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. While it appeared that he was sustaining a new level of production from 2010 to 2012, however, his 2013 season saw a leap back up in per-target Reception NEP, despite being one of his lowest target totals in years.

Due to that 2013 spike, his complete trainwreck last year seems a bit out of place, but there are mixed signals about Davis’s future. On one hand, he missed two games due to injury and was hampered by poor conditioning in the others. On the other, had his per-target efficiency not spiked due to immense touchdown production in 2013, there may have been a natural -- albeit drastic -- downward arc in his production.

As we know from our study on tight end career arcs, a first-round tight end’s Year 8 season (Davis’s 2013) is on average worth a little less 75% of their peak in terms of Total NEP. Year 9 (Davis’s 2014) is where the real late-career drop-off happens, and this level is then worth just over 30% of their peak value. Davis’ decline has been more drastic than this average, but it’s not out of the question to think that he is finished.

Now You See Him

The 49ers coaches are the ones seeing Davis play every day, and they have the most information about his health and ability. On a team so devoid of natural ability right now because of a brutal offseason, I don’t believe they would trade players away without reason. In fact -- in July -- Davis was quoted as saying that he feels “faster, more explosive” than he has since his rookie season, which is great news for his supporters.

The fact is that the numbers behind his performance over the last few years indicate that he is nearing the end. We should not expect Davis to be anywhere near his peak numbers, but he could still be useful as a fantasy flier if he gets the volume to matter in this barren 49ers’ offense.

It does seem, based on our career data, that Davis’s 2014 season was a huge statistical overcorrection for what was a just-as-fluky 2013. He’s a name to flag going forward, but you should leave him on the waiver wire for the time being. The 49ers may have confidence in him, but we don’t.

Case closed.